Nickles, Rodoni set for softball’s big stage at College World Series

Former Pacheco High pitcher Gia Rodoni and the Baylor softball team are set to open the Women’s College World Series against defending champion Oklahoma.
Former Pacheco High pitcher Gia Rodoni and the Baylor softball team are set to open the Women’s College World Series against defending champion Oklahoma. Baylor

Dreams continue to come true for Madilyn Nickles. The former Merced High softball star can check another lifelong goal off her check list this week when Nickles and the UCLA softball team compete at the College Softball World Series in Oklahoma City.

The Bruins (47-13) will open against LSU (47-20) on Thursday at 11:30 a.m.

Nickles’ checklist has some major accomplishments already.

Four Central California Conference championships while playing at Merced – check.

Four-time Sun-Star Softball Player of the Year – check.

Gatorade State Player of the Year for California during her senior season – check.

Gatorade National Player of the Year during her senior season – check.

Play for Team USA, twice – check. (She’ll play for Team USA a third time this summer).

Play softball at UCLA after verbally committing before high school – check.

Now Nickles can add playing on one of softball’s biggest stages as UCLA chases another national championship.

“Like all the other girls, we’ve all had this dream,” Nickles said. “We talk about it all the time. It’s kind of shocking but there’s also this sense of relief in a way. All the hard work has paid off. We’re living out a childhood dream.”

Nickles will be one of two area players participating in the College Softball World Series. Former Pacheco star Gia Rodoni has helped lead Baylor (48-13) to Oklahoma City where the Bears will play defending champions Oklahoma (56-9) on Thursday night at 6:30 p.m.

Both Nickles and Rodoni have played a big role in their teams reaching the world series.

Rodoni made national news when she threw back-to-back no-hitters in the Waco Regional against Kent State and James Madison. The sophomore right-hander was also the winning pitcher in relief in the clinching 6-5 win over Arizona in the Super Regional on Sunday.

Rodoni has shared time in the circle this season with senior Kelsee Selman. Rodoni comes to Oklahoma City with an 18-3 record and a 1.57 ERA and was the winning pitcher in the Bears’ 4-3 victory over Oklahoma earlier this season.

Meanwhile, Nickles had one of the key hits for the Bruins in their Super Regional against Ole Miss.

UCLA trailed by two runs in the bottom of the 10th inning with two out and nobody on in the first game of the best-of-three series.

“It was pretty crazy,” Nickles said. “All of us were like, ‘Oh no. This is not a good situation at all.’ Then Rachel (Garcia) was up to bat with two outs and she got a base hit to get on base. Then Gabby (Maurice) gets a base hit. Now it’s down to me. It’s my turn.”

Nickles hit a two-run double off the right-field wall to tie the game at 7-7 and UCLA won the game 8-7 in 11 innings.

“Coach Lisa (Fernandez) talked to me and said to take everything inside because this umpire is not calling them strikes,” Nickles said. “Everything over the plate she said to swing at. I took the first pitch. She was right, he called it a ball. The very next pitch, I think the pitcher panicked, because she threw a strike right down the middle and luckily I hit it solid. I was so pumped. All of us were screaming. I was just glad to help out and give us a chance to win.”

Nickles hit .285 with 10 home runs and 35 RBI during her freshman season. She did it while dealing with a thumb injury for most of the season and adjusting to life in the outfield after being an infielder all her life.

Nickles injured her thumb during practice and has worn a thumb guard while hitting since. Nickles is now pain free, but the injury effected her for most of the season.

“I couldn’t swing normally,” she said. “Deep down inside, I was paranoid that when I hit the ball it was going to hurt my hand. It bothered me for a couple months. It was the type of injury that was kind of an annoyance. It was more mental.

“It was frustrating for me because everything here is still new to me. I’m a freshman. Every game with this team feels new to me. I’m still adjusting to everything and this was something that was in the way.”

After the Bruins were swept by Utah early on in the season, the UCLA coaching staff made wholesale changes on defense. Six different players moved to different positions, including Nickles who was moved from third base to center field.

Nickles has adjusted to the new position pretty well.

“It wasn’t a piece of cake,” Nickles said. “It was somewhat of a challenge. I had to learn new techniques and defensive skills after being an infielder. Overall, I just wanted to help out the team the best way I could.”

Now Nickles is ready to do whatever she can to give the Bruins a shot at the national championship. With most of the Bruins games in the postseason being broadcast on ESPN networks, her friends and family have been able to follow along for the ride.

“I’ve really had a lot of positive support,” Nickles said. “I’m so happy so many people have been able to watch the games on TV. I’ve had so many texts from friends saying I just watched the game or I can’t wait to watch the game tonight. I’m so happy to be able to represent Merced. I can show the younger generation that you can get to the big stage from a small town.”

Shawn Jansen: 209-385-2462, @MSSsports

College Softball World Series

11:30 a.m. – UCLA vs LSU, ESPN

6:30 p.m. – Bayor vs Oklahoma, ESPN2